The Comedy Cellar and Oasis: 21 Questions with Steve Byrne
Comic talks about life on the road and his third Comedy Central special
Since starting his career in stand-up comedy in the late 1990’s, Steve Byrne has gradually risen to the top and become one of America’s premiere comics to watch. After winning stand-up competitions on both TBS and MySpace, Byrne’s stock as a comedian shot up and helped land him his first one hour special on Comedy Central, Steve Byrne: Happy Hour. Byrne has done extensive touring of North America and over seas as part of the USO Comedy Tour, where he entertained U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan and Guam. Byrne’s latest one-hour special for Comedy Central, The Byrne Identity premiered in July of 2010, and he's currently working on material that will be included in his next special which is cheduled to be taped at the end of this year.
SanDiego.com recently had a chance to talk with Byrne about his early years in stand-up, and his 2003 documentary 13 or Bust, which captured him performing 13 sets in Manhattan over the course of one night.
What do you remember about the first time you did stand-up?
Steve Byrne. I started in New York City right out of college. My parents lived in New York City and I just wanted to stay in New York for a few months before I was going to move to California, and I ended up walking up and down Broadway and I walked into all these restaurants trying to get a job, and the last place I walked into was Caroline’s Comedy Club. Somebody had just gotten fired and I came in looking for a job and the manager just happened to be there and he said, ‘Oh, you’re looking for a job?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ So we talked for a few minutes and he said, ‘Great, come back tomorrow.’ Then I started watching all the comedians and I just thought that’s something I’d like to try out. Four months later I tried it out and I was hooked.
What sort of degree did you earn in college?
SB: I studied theatre at Kent State University.
Did you plan on pursuing acting after you graduated from college?
SB: Yeah, I definitely thought about that. I never had intentions of being a comedian; I had never even been to a stand-up comedy show prior to working at one. So I didn’t even know you could make a living doing it. It was a very foreign world to me, but once I was introduced to it I just thought it was really exciting and I couldn’t believe people got paid to tell jokes for a living.
What was your position when you worked at Caroline’s?
SB: I was a reservationist. I answered the phone and I swept the floors; that’s pretty much what I did for a year.
Did Caroline’s have an open mic?
SB: They didn’t really have an open mic there; Caroline’s is more of headlining club. The other comedy clubs in New York City had open mics, so I ventured off and want to other clubs to get up onstage. The first time I ever got on stage was at Stand Up New York. That was the first place I gave it a whirl, and I remember as soon as I finished, I ran out outside and I was like sobbing. I was overcome with emotion. I had prepared for three of four days and I was like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I did that.’ And I said, “That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
So you used Caroline’s as a means to study the craft and would venture out into the city to cut your teeth at the open mics around New York.
SB: Basically I quit working at the comedy club and I got a job waiting tables that was a little more flexible. I kind of started backwards. I did the open mic’s and I found a comedy club that would let me; basically I swept the floors, took out the garbage and I sat people the whole night, and I would basically wait until one in the morning and they’d give me five minutes of stage time. So I basically worked at a comedy club for free, for like a year. I had a manager who saw me the second time I ever performed onstage, and slowly but surely I started getting road work. So I spent a year doing open mics and then I went out on the road and lived out of a Saturn for like two years, just doing military towns and one-nighters all across the east coast and down south. My first two years was kind of doing that. Then I went back to New York City and got passed at The Comedy Cellar, which is like the fraternity house of all the comedy rooms in New York. Once you’re passed there you can pretty much pass anywhere. Then it was just a domino affect and before I knew it I was working at every single club in New York City and I didn’t have to travel anymore. I was able to just stay in New York City and pay my rent just doing stand-up, and I was doing anywhere from four to nine shows a night.
What would you say was more valuable to you as a developing comedian: the time you spent on the road or the lessons you learned in New York City?
SB: On the road is where I cut my teeth; in New York City is where I kind of developed being really comfortable onstage and every night getting to see everybody work. I mean every night I was working alongside Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Giraldo, Jim Norton, Bill Burr; you name the comic – I saw them perform in New York because if somebody’s doing Letterman the next day they come in The Comedy Cellar. If Chappelle came in he’d do a 3-hour set and I was always the only guy who would stick around and wait until he was done to do my time. I learned that it doesn’t matter who goes on before you. You think you’re intimidated because you’re comparing yourself to that person’s career, but realistically the audience doesn’t give a shit. After Chris Rock leaves they still want to laugh, so it’s up to you to do your best and not be intimidated by that. So it was one of many great lessons I learned form being in New York.